Sunday, May 31, 2009

Down Goes Rafa

One of the great runs in the history of sports came to an end today when Rafael Nadal lost in the fourth round of the French Open.

I knew that Nadal -- 22 years old, until Wednesday -- had won four straight French Open titles (including his first attempt, which means he had never lost there), and that he's arguably already the greatest clay-court player of all time, but I hadn't realized this: Coming into this fourth-round match, he had lost just two of his last 53 sets at Roland Garros. That's insane.

Former great Mats Wilander joked that the remaining players would all be "having a beer tonight." Of those remaining, the on-the-rise Andy Murray and the American Andy Roddick (winner of one Grand Slam, who may have one three or four more if his career didn't coincide with Roger Federer's) are interesting, but Federer will have the brightest spotlight. He needs the French to complete a career Grand Slam, and to solidify his argument as the greatest player of all time. (Either Nadal or Federer has won 15 of the past 16 Grand Slam tournaments.)

Nadal was lighthearted enough after his defeat to crack wise when asked about preparing for Wimbledon, which starts in three weeks:
"Right now, my preparation is for the swimming pool of my house," Nadal said, smiling at his own joke. "Yeah, give me three more days to think about preparation for Wimbledon."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

New Prize for Bloggers

General interest blog 3 Quark Daily has announced a new series of prizes (The Quarks, naturally) that it will award throughout the year for the best blog post in four categories -- Science, Arts & Literature, Politics, and Philosophy. There's actual cash involved in these prizes, too.

Readers nominate posts in the comments section, so this seems like a good way to find some quality material you may have missed. The first prize is Science. Arts and Literature will be up next, in the fall. When that time comes, if you feel like nominating something from a blog you regularly visit -- ahem -- please do.

What a Luntz

It’s hard to imagine a bigger putz -- or a more appropriately named person -- than Frank Luntz. Though it seems he works for Republicans these days, I first came to know him when he appeared to be a nonpartisan charlatan on various cable shows, introducing things like those “dials” that focus groups use to judge every nanosecond of a debate. (“The crowd clearly didn’t like McCain’s use of an indefinite article there.” That kind of ingenious thing.)

Mostly, he’s a self-proclaimed “language person,” the kind who turns “global warming” into “climate change” and such. Samantha Bee of The Daily Show once said, “Luntz has made a brilliant career spraying perfume on dog turds.”

You can’t say Luntz lacks chutzpah. He once argued that the term “Orwellian” describes the good guys: “To be ‘Orwellian’ is to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is . . .” Uh, right.

Last weekend, he was interviewed in the New York Times by Deborah Solomon. Check out these two useful exchanges:
Who paid you to write the health care memo?
It’s not relevant.

Where did you grow up?
Who cares?
Thanks for showing up, Frank. I hope we didn’t wake you.

Luntz works most often for the conservative side, but chipping away at the integrity of language has deep precedent all along the spectrum. I think about political correctness, and George Carlin’s charting of the evolution of the term shell shock (“Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.”) as it morphed into battle fatigue to operational exhaustion (“Sounds like something that might happen to your car.”) and finally to post-traumatic stress disorder (“Still eight syllables, but we've added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon.”)

When is your next book coming out?
In September. It’s called “What Americans Really Want … Really: The Truth About Our Hopes, Dreams and Fears.”

It’s better without the subtitle, which detracts from the wit of the two “really” ’s.
Well, I wrote “Words That Work,” and the subtitle is “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” and that is the most important single line I have ever written.
The most important single line he’s ever written was “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” I've written better lines on grocery lists. (For example: "Get frozen chicken fingers.") Luntz's best-ever effort is just a slightly repackaged, more cynical version of “tell them what they want to hear,” which was spoken by whichever caveman first mastered speech. For this, Luntz gets big bucks? With this guy on retainer, it's no wonder 98% of politicians sound like morons.

Lastly, we get:
Are you married?
No. I may have perfected the language that gets people to vote certain ways, and buy certain products, but I haven’t perfected the language to get some woman to buy me.
It might not help that, if the picture accompanying his interview is any indication, Luntz allows himself to be dressed by a blind, gay circus clown.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Anyway, Susan

How do you know The Tragically Hip is a Canadian band? Easy: Two of its members go by “Gord.” (Lead singer Gordon Downie and bassist Gord Sinclair.) They’ve released a dozen or so albums, and they are not hip in any way, tragic or otherwise. They are truly huge in Canada, and they have a devoted, if smaller, following in the States. They play fairly straight-ahead rock, but fronted by Downie’s distinct voice and smart lyrics, which alternate between elliptical and narrative.

Their work is wildly hit or miss. The friend who introduced me to them did me the courtesy a while ago of compiling their better songs. When you stick to those, they’re solid. One of my favorite lyrics comes at the beginning of “Fireworks”:
if there's a goal that everyone remembers,
it was back in ol’ ’72
we all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
and all I remember is sitting beside you

you said you didn't give a f*** about hockey
and I never saw someone say that before
you held my hand and we walked home the long way
you were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr
The song below, for Wednesday, is decidedly darker. It’s called “Nautical Disaster.” You can read its pretty chilling lyrics here, and then you can have fun reading the comments beneath, where people heatedly discuss the factual basis for the lyrics of a song that starts, “I had this dream where...” Some claim it’s based on the Battle of Dieppe, others the sinking of the Bismarck. Still others think it’s just a metaphor for a doomed relationship. In any case, I think the lyrics are pretty great, and Downie himself seems perfectly content to obscure whatever possible origin the song has in reality, and to poke fun at himself. On a live version given to me by the aforementioned friend, Downie introduces the song by saying that it’s about to be adapted into a movie, “starring Peter O'Toole as the curmudgeonly lighthouse keeper, and Jodie Foster in the role of Susan...It's called The Nurse Patient.”

As you might expect from Canadians, they seem like pretty normal dudes in this clip. Well, it comes from an appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1995, which makes it a little odd that the lead guitarist looks like a 1980s magician. And Downie does look quite normal, but definitely in an 11-o’-clock-news, he-was-the-quietest-neighbor-we-ever-had kind of way. Enjoy:


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Two Links, For Now

Busy with some other things today, but the rest of the week around here will be pretty active. Several things lined up, a few of which you might enjoy. For now, while I'm here, I'll put in a word for two things at The Second Pass: Juan Pablo Lombana's review of the new Gabriel García Márquez biography (in it, you'll learn who said, "You'll end up eating paper!") and a blog post of mine about a review I believe you should read -- if posting it on two different sites won't convince you, I don't know what will.


Supreme Sonia?

President Obama has nominated Sonia Sotomayor as the next Supreme Court justice. It sounds like the confirmation hearings might not be the same kind of circus they've sometimes turned into in the past: "even Republicans said they have little hope of blocking confirmation barring unforeseen revelation."

The Times article noting the nomination does include this paragraph:
Judge Sotomayor has said her ethnicity and gender are important factors in serving on the bench, a point that could generate debate. “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” she said in a 2002 lecture.
Interesting. At first, I was taken aback by that -- if she means that as an absolute rule, it sounds a lot like reverse idiocy. But it's 32 words from her life, plucked out of the context of a larger lecture -- and possibly a question asked at that lecture about a specific situation. In any case, Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx projects, so her nomination should at least, as a narrative, please those who argue that America still has unique mobility opportunities.


Monday, May 25, 2009

More Trouble at Chuck's Place

I interrupt your holiday with breaking news from the ultra-violent terrordome of Chuck E. Cheese. A 34-year-old man in Massachusetts ripped Chuck E.'s head off and was fined $500. The prosecutor wanted six months in jail for the guy, and at first I thought that was a bit harsh. But really, stiffer penalties might be the only way to keep the restaurant chain from becoming a failed state.

(Via my friend The Wisest of Men)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Quote for the Weekend

"You can only do two things with a base. You can sit on it and watch the world go by, or you can build on it." --Colin Powell

I think one obvious way you can judge a party's baseline health is the way it treats its centrists. Forget about coddling them or even listening to them, but just how it treats them; the tone taken. And in that category, how could you give the Republicans anything but an F these days? Powell can talk about his GOP convention appearances and Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan all he wants -- the party, for now, won't listen.

Friday, May 22, 2009

AP Headline of the Day

Toddler Buys Earthmover in Online Auction

A Pleasure Somewhere Between Innocent and Guilty

As you should well know by now, I’m not above getting deeply involved with power pop, and there are few better places to fall in love with it than on the highway. The highway -- like the bodega, and various other places where public sentiment applies -- allows you to let down your guard and welcome in bad radio. And once you welcome it in, you realize that not all of it is bad. Sometime last year, I heard Paramore’s “That’s What You Get,” a song I initially found difficult to categorize. (I still do, kind of.)

There are thousands of pop songs released every year, and since the vast majority of them fall somewhere on the spectrum between “Man, This is Terrible” and “Please Make It Stop, My Brain is Bleeding,” it’s easy to consider the whole enterprise a waste of time. But this very overstock of horrendousness is what proves that the handful of ostensibly disposable songs that leave a lasting impression must be doing something fairly significant right. Kelly Clarkson won over the hipsters a few years ago with “Since U Been Gone,” at least in part, I think, because the song’s lyrics weren’t about cheesy love or regret but freedom (“since you been gone / I can breathe for the first time / I’m so movin’ on,” etc.) Like that song (and I don’t mean to turn my subjects here into Keats or even Mike Skinner, believe), Paramore’s is about the downside of love over logic. (“I drown out all my sense / with the sound of its beating . . . If I ever start to think straight / this heart will start a riot in me,” etc.)

The line that contains its title -- “That’s what you get when you let your heart win” -- makes clear that the “that” is not something shiny and happy. Set against a propulsive beat, I think it’s a pretty great example of making a simple hook stand out from the crowd. You might disagree. (The song’s official video, which can be found on the band’s site, is teentastic -- and that’s an insult; don’t be fooled by the “tastic.” The band’s been featured on the Twilight soundtrack. The official iTunes review references Avril Lavigne and Fall Out Boy. What I’m saying is, I’m not recommending this band. Everything else I’ve heard is not very impressive, though I do think the singer, Hayley Williams, has a stronger voice than Avril and her ilk.)

OK, so this post may have been inspired by the song and by the fact that Williams is pretty cute. And OK, I admit that I did some very quick research about her. It turns out she was born in . . . 1988. December 1988. That’s right, readers. She’s 20. She considers Miley Cyrus, like, a peer. Just a few more years and I can start to say with some credibility that I could be a 20-year-old’s father.

Paramore’s last album has been reviewed 2,656 times on iTunes, which means that I could be the father of most of the band’s audience, too. (Not literally; there are only so many hours in the day.) Old people simply don’t get reviewed on the new technologies. For instance: Strange Magic: The Best of Electric Light Orchestra? 18 reviews.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Just a Man and His Will to Survive

When I was in college and Conan O’Brien landed the gig as David Letterman’s replacement, I was excited. As an intense Simpsons geek, I was one of the few hundred people in America who had an opinion of him. He was the credited writer on “The New Kid on the Block” and “Marge vs. the Monorail,” two of the show’s best-ever episodes. He was more than all right in my book.

Eighty-seven years later, here we are. I haven’t actually watched much of Conan (or one of my idols, Letterman) over the past few years. You reach a point where you’ve seen, oh, nine thousand hours of late night TV, and no matter how much you respect the hosts, that seems like enough. But I’ll admit that this goofy promo for O’Brien’s debut on “The Tonight Show” has me -- there’s no other word for it -- psyched. This might simply be the presence of “Eye of the Tiger,” which, even when used ironically, has a tendency to pump me up. (I had a long dalliance with Rocky III when I was young. I’m not proud of it.)

The forthcoming issue of the New York Times Magazine features a long article about O’Brien’s transition. (The piece is already available online. The new “Tonight Show” premieres June 1.) The article features much of what you’d expect, including Jay Leno saying a bunch of dumb things, many of them involving a metaphor of America as a football.

I sympathize with O’Brien’s inability, five years ago, to properly view the future:
In 2004, when O’Brien’s contract was up and other networks were aggressively wooing him, NBC promised him their flagship. “But they wanted me to wait five years to be the host of ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” O’Brien told me. “And in 2004, 2009 sounded absurdly far away. I thought that in 2009, we’d be flying around with jet packs and our dinners would be in pill form.”
The future’s here now, though. The question is whether O’Brien’s absurd sense of humor will remain the same in L.A., and, if the answer to that is yes, whether viewers will want it in large enough numbers to make him the same success at 11:30 as he was at 12:30. We’ll see. For what it’s worth, the answer to the first question is shaping up to be yes:
Ideas [for the new show] were starting to take shape, too, many of them inspired by the back lot itself. “Jaws” was a huge hit for Universal, and one writer suggested that Bruce, the mechanical shark, could occasionally drop by the show. “In our mind, he sounds like Paul Lynde,” O’Brien explained. “He dishes dirt about his co-stars.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

And, Aaand, Aaaaaaaand....

I watched O Brother, Where Art Thou? again the other night. It put me in the mood for old-timey-sounding music. (It also made me realize a big omission from this list I made a while ago: the scene toward the end, when the Soggy Bottom Boys sing "Man of Constant Sorrow" in the big hall. A great scene, carried along by Clooney's considerable charm.) So for Wednesday, here's Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and Old Crow Medicine Show doing a version of the classic "The Weight":

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Exile Lit

Over at More Intelligent Life, I review an exhibit that focuses on German writers and publishers in exile during the 1940s:
Despite this lofty output, German readers in America were thin on the ground, ensuring slim profits. Yet these publishers had more complicated motivations. Especially during the war years, German editions were “much more a demonstration of cultural (and political) self-assertiveness than a business,” writes Wulf Koepke, a German literature professor, in an essay republished in the exhibition’s handsome, slim catalogue. Most writers had to decide whether to “renounce the present and write for a future German-speaking public” or to “try to write in English and become authentic immigrants.”

Small World

I've been playing online Scrabble (now called Lexulous; don't sue me) for less than two years, but it's hard to imagine life before it. It is the thing I turn to during times of boredom and procrastination, which times constitute about 92% of my waking hours. I've played thousands of games. The site allows you to "chat" with your opponent, which I normally do very minimally, congratulating them on good plays, etc. One of the few players who brought me out of my shell -- it didn't hurt that she seemed sane and friendly, which can't be said about everyone who frequents the site -- turned out to be a New Zealand artist named Susan Edge. (Her official site is here.)

Susan recently completed a painting called "Small World" that features several of her Scr... er, Lexulous, opponents around the world. I am, I believe, perched on the New York skyline. (Don't worry, I play from a much safer position, normally at the kitchen table or on the living room couch. Sometimes at Starbucks. Always at ground level, in any case.) How she knew to make me blond, I'm not sure.

As someone I know said upon seeing this, the fact that the web inspired something so sweet and friendly starts to make up for all the obscene and juvenile garbage on message boards everywhere. As always, click to enlarge:

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Frog Starts the Week

Welcome to the second week of what I like to call The ASWOBA Revitalization Project -- which will include posts on the president, power pop, secrets to aging well, obituaries (for when those secrets don't work, I guess), and perhaps a longer post on a hot-button political issue, if I find time to finish it. For now, we'll start with something simple but great. It's a little LCD Kermitsystem for your listening and viewing pleasure. Enjoy:

(Via pretty to think so)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Preakness Preview

One last sports post for the week. (A musical one might follow later today.)

Tomorrow’s Preakness Stakes has more drama than the race has had in recent years. Most notably, a filly is likely to be the big favorite. Rachel Alexandra (at left) won the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths. Now, she’ll try to become only the fifth filly to win the Preakness (the last one was in 1924), and the 10th to win any of the Triple Crown races. Those are steep historical odds, but her day-of-race odds will be much shorter -- something like 2-1.

There have been plenty of subplots, two of them most prominent: One, there was a cheap plan among other owners to keep Rachel Alexandra from running, but luckily that failed. And two, Calvin Borel will be the first jockey to ever switch from a Kentucky Derby winner to another mount in the Preakness. He won on 50-1 shot Mine That Bird in the Derby, of course, but he’s always ridden the favored filly, so he’ll switch to her at Pimlico. (Some argue that bringing a female horse back off two weeks’ rest and running her against the big boys is dangerous; others scoff at that.)

My fairly uninformed opinion (I haven’t combed through the past performances yet) would bet this way for win-place-show: Friesan Fire, Rachel Alexandra, Musket Man. But I'll be rooting for the filly.

Speaking of Borel, I don’t think it’s completely unfair to make this comparison:

A Different Kind of Calling Card

Today's dose of insanity: "Business cards" that were created by Chicago gangs in the 1970s and '80s. Many of them are pretty ornate -- and, given that some of them are from white-supremacist groups, hateful. This one is admirably straightforward:

(Via Very Short List)

Supreme Court Candidate Sonia Sotomayor (First in a Series?)

Now this is helpful information about a judge. It's been a little sports-heavy around here lately (apologies?), but this is sports-meets-justice. Sonia Sotomayor, one of the judges supposedly on the list of candidates to replace David Souter on the Supreme Court, ended the Major League Baseball strike in 1995. Nice credential.

She also has the kind of personal story that is genuinely inspiring:
[She] grew up in a Bronx housing project, a child of Puerto Rican immigrants. . . . Her father died when she was 9, leaving her mother to raise her and a brother. In speeches to Latino groups over the years, Judge Sotomayor has recalled how her mother worked six days a week as a nurse to send her and her brother to Catholic school, purchased the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood and kept a warm pot of rice and beans on the stove every day for their friends. She loved Nancy Drew mysteries, she once said, and yearned to be a police detective. But a doctor who diagnosed her childhood diabetes suggested that would be difficult.
Couple of things here: First, I'm sure her decisions tend liberal, but her background should appeal to conservatives who champion the idea that America allows its lower classes to move up with hard work and determination. (After all, Bobby Jindal titled his response to Obama's address to Congress: "Americans Can Do Anything.") Secondly, she's still diabetic (takes insulin daily), and despite the fact that she's only 54, I would think that might be an issue in confirming her. In any case, filling a Supreme Court vacancy is always fascinating.


Astonishing sports fact of the night, from the New York Times:
[The Celtics] have closed out three Game 7’s in the last two postseasons and are 32-0 when leading a series by 3-2.
Wow. If you were 6-0 or 7-0, OK, strong but no big deal. After all, you were up 3-2 in every series. But to do it 32 times over a franchise's history? To never lose Games 6 and 7 in that many tries? Crazy. They'll have a chance to make that 33-0 on Sunday night against Orlando. I've been rooting against Boston so far in these playoffs, but now I'm not so sure. Celtics-Cavs might have more epic potential than Magic-Cavs. Hmmm....

Meanwhile, in the other Game 7 of what promises to be a fun Sunday, the Lakers will have all the pressure on them. To even be taken to a Game 7 by a Yao-less and McGrady-less Rockets team after winning 65 games...that's embarrassing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


For Wednesday, The Jayhawks from a way long time ago, doing "Two Angels" on public access TV. Hang around for the very '90s-style interview after the song, when they discuss what other bands eat. ("Soul Asylum is very pasta heavy.") Enjoy:



In case you haven't seen it yet (unlikely), Jesse "The Body" Ventura, former Navy man: "You give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders." . . . An amazing picture book from 1970 told the genders how it is (or was). . . . Matthew Dessem provides some laughs with a dissection of The Blob. . . . Funny/interesting story about battling groups of gay Republicans. . . . Lately on The Second Pass, in case you haven't been visiting (tsk-tsk): Me on a book about baseball umpires, Sarah Douglas on Geoff Dyer's latest, Anne Trubek on a frightening novel from early America, and Emily Votruba on the theology of Simone Weil.

Big Pics

I only remind you because I need to remind myself: You should visit The Big Picture. Hadn't been in a while, and still need to catch up quite a bit, but two galleries popped out at me: This collection of aerial perspectives from around the world, and this group of Kentucky Derby photos, including the great shot below (as ever, click to enlarge).
Kentucky Derby hopeful General Quarters rubs his head on his stall after his early morning workout at the 135th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 2, 2009, in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Story of a Canning

Here is both an interesting link and a reason why Twitter is so ridiculous and unnecessary. Dan Baum used to write for The New Yorker. On his recent book tour, people started asking him why he doesn't anymore. The experience inspired him to tell the story of how he was fired. So he started Twittering about it. The results can be seen here in incredibly annoying Twitter fashion. Not only is it posted so you have to read from the bottom up, but what exactly was the point in using this format when he would post several sentences at a time -- like, what's the word, a paragraph? -- in reverse order. Maddening.

Baum put it on his official site in a more traditional style; the style it should have been written in originally.

But it's an interesting story, especially if you're a fan of, employee of, or aspiring employee of a heavy-hitting magazine. It includes links to pitches to the magazine and several stories that the magazine killed. Baum's tone is mostly self-aware, but it seems like his fatal crime was being socially clueless.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Professor vs. The Primitive

I've made many promises lately about returning to a normal schedule around here. So instead of paying it lip service today, I hope this 1,700-word post proves my renewed seriousness. (Granted, some of the words aren't mine.)

David Barash is a psychology professor at the University of Washington, and this piece of his has been making the rounds online for a while. (Thus the reference to March Madness in the first paragraph.) It's essentially an argument that watching sports is not far removed, on an ethical spectrum, from suicide bombing. It runs to more than 3,500 words. I've responded to a lot of it (though, good lord, not all of it) below. Barash's words are in bold and indented. Mine are not.
Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn't religion, but spectator sports. What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves? The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month's collegiate basketball championship season is not who will win, but why anyone cares.
Great start. Let’s change this sentence to apply to movies: “What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that narratives composed of moving pictures of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves?”

Or books: “What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the fake exploits of fake people are somehow consequential for themselves?”

Or ballet: “What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves?” (That last example is the sentence unchanged, in case you hadn’t noticed.)

I’m all for direct experience, but for Barash’s opening formulation to be useful, you would have to apply it to anything you enjoy that other people do. This is to say nothing of “consequential,” a loaded word that goes unexplained. Consequential in what sense? And how many of the seemingly intelligent millions truly believe in those consequences?
Not that I would try to stop anyone from root, root, rooting to his or her heart's content. It's just that such things are normally done by pigs, in the mud, or by seedlings, lacking a firm grip on reality — fine for them, but I am not at all sure this is something that human beings should do. In desperation, if threatened with starvation, I suppose that I would root — for dinner. But for the home team? Never.
Are you getting the sense, like me, that Professor Barash smiles a lot?
More than a decade ago, a baseball strike canceled the season and the World Series. The first time ever, we were told in hushed tones. . . . But wait. Here is heresy indeed: Was it really such a disaster? Or is it a disaster that our current paragons have been revealed to be hormonally enhanced and ethically challenged?
Well: A. No, it wasn’t such a disaster. It was just a bummer for baseball fans; and B. Ethical challenges are indeed a greater disaster -- though, also not such a disaster -- and they’ve been covered that way. Reporting and hand-wringing on steroids has been going on a good decade now. The lost World Series was forgotten pretty soon after the fact.
Is life so pale, dull, and unsatisfying that it must be experienced vicariously in order to be savored? You might try reading a book, talking with your family, going for a walk, wrestling with the dog, listening to some music, smelling a flower, making love.
Not for the last time: Huh? I’m a big baseball fan. A big sports fan in general. I read lots of books (sometimes for vicarious experience), I talk with my family often, I’m willing to bet I take long walks as often as the author does or more, I listen to music almost constantly, flowers are fine, and . . . well, let’s keep this family-friendly. The point is, I urge Barash to Google the phrase “mutually exclusive.” What he finds will be useful during the composition of future articles.
Let me be clear: It is not the doughty doing of sports that is so ill-conceived, but the woeful watching, the ridiculous rooting, the silly spectating. . . . I have no quarrel with vigorous participation, pursuing an activity for its own sake, for the exercise, the camaraderie, the joy of simply doing it. That appeal is in fact so strong that the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga seriously proposed 70 years ago that the human species be renamed Homo ludens (man the player).
Don’t get me started on Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. That guy still owes me 50 bucks. Instead, let’s travel back in time with Mr. Barash, to when professional athletics didn’t exist:

A few guys are kicking a ball around a patch of dirt. Over time, some of these guys become really good at it. Over a bit more time, they’re so good that others are inspired to stand around watching them do it. They’re that good. Why would Barash condemn anyone -- author, dancer, orator -- to excel at something in solitude? Is there really something so incomprehensible in admiring someone else’s gifts? Has the professor ever witnessed a particularly well-turned double play?

[More nonsense redacted]
. . . when children avidly pore over vacuous images and vital statistics, or traipse enthusiastically to the local (or even distant) stadium, it is easy to make allowances. Indeed, there is something touching about such fresh-faced yearning for exemplars, even though the constellations they see may not be notable for the content of their characters, intelligence, compassion, decency, or creativity, but rather for an uncommon and sometimes downright freakish ability to hit, throw, catch, roll, or bounce a ball, to jump high or punch hard, or to bump into other people in such a manner as to knock them down and/or avoid being knocked down themselves.
Is this serious? Lots of people play sports. Unsurprisingly, given the make-up of any group of “lots of people,” some of them are less admirable than others. I suppose we shouldn’t teach our children to read because of the character defects of Hemingway and Marquis de Sade. Also, not notable for their “creativity”? Again I ask, not rhetorically, has Barash himself ever watched a supremely gifted athlete play, or is he too busy staring at the fans and taking notes? Wayne Gretzky? Michael Jordan? Mostly, I find his essay so dispiriting because of the assumption that physical creativity is so inferior to mental creativity that it need not socially register.

[More nonsense redacted, in which Barash comes close to arguing that physical skill makes one, ipso facto, less likely to be an admirable person; boldly groups Alice Walker with Einstein and Gandhi (don’t ask); trashes the idea of ever identifying with a group; uses the word “ersatz”; implicates the audience (again).]

Finally, he reveals what he’s up to, using evolutionary psychology as the mindless cudgel it’s quickly becoming. He actually starts a sentence, “Consider the American oystercatcher, a shorebird about the size of a crow...” Given the context, I’d rather not. I can’t linger on this section of the piece (which is quite long, so you can thank me next time you see me), partly because I do find overuse of evolutionary psychology intellectually repugnant and partly because it often seems to contradict the author (and expose him or her as a simple egoist) even when it’s right. I’ve said this about Richard Dawkins and others before, but here we just substitute sports-watching for religion: The scientist-philosophers carefully argue that we have a deep need, a deep instinct, a primordial urge to do what we do; and yet they spend the bulk of their time (and prose) proclaiming their complete befuddlement at why we do it.

In a word: What?

Here’s one last burst of Barash, and then I’ll close with some visual argumentation:
It is no great distance from the mesmerizing impact of close-order drill to the stimulating consequence of shared chanting and cheering, the waving of arms (military or civilian) in unison. The Wave, which many fans say originated in my hometown of Seattle, is a good example. Even though they don't get to swing a bat, throw a pass, or sink a three-pointer, fans have been inventive in providing themselves with ritualized, shared movements that further embellish the allure as well as the illusion of being part of the larger, shared whole, tapping into that primitive satisfaction that moves at almost lightning speed from shared, ritual action to a tempestuous sense of expanded self. One becomes part of a great beckoning, grunting, yet smoothly functioning, and, presumably, security-generating Beast. And for those involved, it apparently feels good to be thus devoured whole and to live in its belly.
Notice the use of “primitive” again. Let’s overcome ourselves, y’all! Forget for a moment that The Wave is perhaps the worst example of anything except human boredom and stupidity; given that I often see it begun at moments of high drama on the field, the most malevolent thing it might signify is ADD. Let’s focus on the military angle here -- the implication (which Barash enforces later by shamelessly bringing up Rwanda) that caring about sports is just a step or two below genocide. As a counter-argument, I’d like to re-post the following video, which I first shared in October 2006. It shows the view from outfield seats as Magglio Ordonez hits a home run to send the Detroit Tigers to the World Series, the team’s first in a while. I’ll grant Barash that sports fans aren’t worth defending as an entire group -- there are plenty of drunken louts and violent hooligans. But I’m not going to degrade them as an entire group, either. In this clip, I see a bunch of strangers enjoying themselves -- a lot -- and sharing a great moment. They’ll get up to go to work the next morning. Just like they would if the Tigers lost. Can they just enjoy this moment without being asked to consider their philosophical relationship to oystercatchers?


Friday, May 08, 2009

The Little Professor

Q: How do you become the most overlooked seven-time all-star in baseball history? A: Easy, be the brother of Joe.

Dom DiMaggio has died at 92.
[Ted] Williams, playing left field at Fenway, got an earful from fans who marveled at Dom's sparking outfield play.

"The wolves in left field were always yelling how he was playing his position and mine," Williams recalled in his autobiography . . . “He was a great outfielder.”

The Sporting Life

In addition to his own insights on his excellent sports blog, my friend Miles consistently digs up the most entertaining clips around. To wit, here's President Obama shooting hoops with the University of Connecticut women's basketball team that went 39-0 this year. Early on, one of the Lady Huskies charmingly notes, "It's the White House rim!" Then, Obama shows off his silky jump shot a few times and says things like, "Come on, now. Let's see what you got."

Exhibit B is embedded below. It's the famously lunatic Ron Artest discussing his ejection from Game 2 of the Rockets' series against the Lakers. It includes, among other gems, the classically straightforward line, "The point was to really, hopefully, let the refs know I’m pissed."

Thursday, May 07, 2009

If He Ever Hurts You...

Sorry for the belated Wednesday song this week. I've been distracted.

It seems that I've been having even more conversations than usual lately about how awesome Journey is. So, for this week, here's the band playing "Separate Ways" in Tokyo in 1983. Notice that at least two of the band members appear to be wearing the yellow jumpers that Dignan gave his crew in Bottle Rocket. Enjoy:


Monday, May 04, 2009

AP Headline of the Day

Brawl Breaks Out During Karaoke at Ore. Restaurant

Mine Those Odds

I watched the Kentucky Derby at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, outside of Dallas. I was there with my dad and a friend of his, and I bet lightly most of the day, saving up for the big race. Big mistake.

The bulk of my action in the Derby was on Dunkirk, a lightly raced but very promising horse that was 6-1 when I bet him. He stumbled out of the gate and was never a factor. The race was an ugly one, with 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird winning by the biggest margin since 1946.

It would seem he had two things going for him: a weak field (several potential favorites had slowly fallen out of the race over the last few months due to injury) and a brave, talented jockey (Calvin Borel just squeezed him through on the rail to make the final run). Otherwise, like Giacomo, another 50-1 shot who won in 2005, Mine That Bird seems destined to do not much from here on out. Yes, three-year-old horses can suddenly mature into better athletes, but Mine That Bird did a lot to earn his 50-1 status on Saturday. He finished dead last out of 12 horses in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile race, an early showcase for potential Derby horses. His two races before the Derby came at New Mexico's obscure-for-a-reason Sunland Park, and he didn't even win them.

Some observers seem eager to make this horse something he isn't. Like Mark Beech, who writes:
Yes, Mine That Bird ran the early part of the race in dead last and picked off tiring horses to win the race. But it was the way he did it that makes him look like he might be something special.
I think the only special thing about Mine That Bird will be his winning the Derby at 50-1. But I wouldn't mind being proven wrong. If he goes on to challenge for the Triple Crown, we've got a real story on our hands.